I have been asked over and over again lately to comment on events evolving in Ferguson. That’s difficult for me to do, as I haven’t been there, and I know these kinds of situations are intensely fluid and wildly distorted by media outlets with competing agendas. I also try to think a bit before opening my mouth (something I fail to do constantly).
In the end, my thoughts are academic, which may be a way of ducking the question, but I think speaks to the issue question of what we want our police to look like in the coming years. To explain what I mean, let me talk for a second about Wil Wheaton.
Like many, I grew up with him as Ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek (a nickname I was given when I was an Ensign myself, after my shipmates learned I was a science-fiction fan), and then lost him for a while until I went pro as a writer. At that time, I enthusiastically embraced social media, which Wheaton pretty much owns. He’s funny, he’s clever, he champions causes that resonate strongly with me. But that’s not why I’m bringing him up.
I can only assume it began as light humor, but “Wheaton’s Law” (Don’t be a dick) of Internet behavior has become a meme of such intense resonance that it has its own Urban Dictionary definition.
As I said, it’s generally understood to govern Internet behavior, where anonymity and physical distance tend to evoke the worst in us.
But it has relevance everywhere, including one of those fields dearest to me: law enforcement (LE).
First, let’s establish my credentials. By the standards of any hard-bitten patrol cop, I am a law-enforcement neophyte. I have a few years of experience at the federal level in mostly intel roles. I currently do specialized work for a large, metropolitan police department. I do participate in hands-on patrol law enforcement as a member of Coast Guard boarding teams. But I do want to say up front that I am not a lifelong street cop. Also, these are my personal views and in no way reflect any organization I am affiliated with.
To understand why cops should care about Wheaton’s Law, we need to look to Sir Robert Peel, a 19th century British statesman who created the concept of the modern police force. Peel’s nine principles are de rigeur amongst LE types. Most folks don’t have them memorized, but we all know they exist. I *do* have them memorized, because I strongly feel that they form the bedrock of how LE *must* function if it is to be successful.
Now, I’m not going to delve into all nine principles here, but I will sum it up with Peel’s most famous quote: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” Peel’s notion is sometimes called “policing by consent” and it revolves around a basic idea: police officers are grossly outnumbered by members of the public. A population absolutely cannot be effectively policed unless it not only consents to, but actively cooperates with, said policing. The public *must* see themselves as active partners in their own LE. There are too many people in too many places capable of too much stuff for LE to see them all, protect them all. LE *must* rely on the public to report crimes and more importantly, to obey the law in the first place.
There are two alternatives to this: the first is a police state. The second is a failed government, a la Somalia or the Congo. Neither of those are pretty options, and neither of those (no matter what legitimate criticism you may level at our own nation) are the case in the US. But this is why it is called policing by *consent*. That consent is critical. Its withdrawal is disastrous.
I’ve talked before about “Cop’s Eyes,” a jaundiced world view that is a kind of PTSD, where a person immersed in crime begins to see everyone as a potential threat. LE pros risk their lives every time they go on patrol, and I cannot begin to express the kind of deep-seated terror that dwells in the pit of your stomach when you pull up alongside a vessel to do a boarding. You have absolutely no idea who these people are and what they might do. You are steeped in sea stories of non-compliance and violence. And that’s in the Coast Guard where use-of-force scenarios are relatively rare. So, it’s not surprising that many patrol cops wear their war-faces out on the street. They are permanently in Condition Orange, ready to face a threat that could potentially end their life. “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by eight,” is an axiom you hear a lot.
And that’s a problem.
Because every negative interaction between LE and the public, no matter how minor, erodes that critical consent. And when it erodes enough, you get the ’92 LA Riots, or the Watts uprising, or Detroit’s 12th St. Debacle. And yes, you get Ferguson.
Don’t be a dick, Wheaton tells us. LE professionals must think of themselves as *ambassadors* to the public. The job has much in common with customer service positions, providing a ready smile and a soft tone. Deescalating, active-listening. Many of my colleagues tell me that this approach will cause the public to mistake kindness for weakness, and cause more violence than it prevents. But I think that’s a rather Hobbesian view of the public. There will always be cases where force must be used, but most people don’t want confrontations with LE. They want to feel respected and protected. They want to like and be liked by their police.
Policy makers also shouldn’t be dicks. They are the hand that wields the LE club. Criminalizing behavior creates environments where LE pros and the public come into conflict. Every instance of that conflict raises the risk of the individual withdrawing their consent. In ones or twos, this is the price of doing business, but pebbles can add up to avalanches, as we see in Sudan or Syria, or Libya, or Afghanistan. Legislators and the voting public do well to consider the baseline standard that if an act doesn’t absolutely have to be deemed criminal for the safety of all, then maybe it shouldn’t be.
When I do my job, I always always always remember Peel. Policing by consent. Trust is the kernel of that, and every LE pro has a role in establishing it.
And an Internet meme is an important lesson in how microinteractions can impact that for the better. Ferguson is the wages of ignoring it. We do that at our peril.